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COMMENTARY

We Regret to Inform You

By Norris Burkes
Contributing Columnist

CBN.com(ChaplainNorris.com) -- I don't like fish.

My wife loves fish, but shes always a bit superstitious about cooking it.

She claims that our fish dinners are routinely interrupted by my chaplains duty beeper. Whether working as hospital chaplain or a military chaplain, it always seemed to be the same.

Emerging from the house one Saturday afternoon, my wife interrupted my yard work by fashioning a "time-out" signal with her hand and my beeper.

"Mortuary Affairs Office," I said reading the number.

"Let me guess, I won't be cooking fish tonight?" she called as I ran into the house for a quick shower.

"Don't slice the lemon just yet!"

Thirty minutes later, I was in my dress uniform meeting with our death notification team. Composed of a lawyer, a chaplain, a medic and a commander, the team seems more like the beginning of a very predictable Bob Hope joke.

"There was a doctor, a lawyer and a priest driving down the street."

Only this jokeless script read:

"Are you Mrs. John E. Jones?"

"Yes."

"Is your husband Captain John E. Jones?"

"Yes."

"Ma'am, we regret to inform you that your husband Capt John E Jones, SSN 555-55-5555 was killed."

Of course we rarely get that far without a gush of sobbing and hemorrhage of denial, but we stay with the script until it is delivered.

As many times as we have delivered the news, weve always read from the script. It's the only way to get through without cracking. The effort is to be compassionate, but professional.

"Professional" means we always rehearse the script and watch a refresher video detailing the process. It also means checking and rechecking our facts before navigating our stereotypical Air Force blue sedan through the heart of base housing.

Uniforms in base housing on a weekend are a rare event and their sudden appearance in the cul-de-sac made us look like a small parade. We were a living, breathing cliché.

As we stepped out of our car a little boy met us at the curb. He was just in time to point out his mother who was coming out of the garage wiping motor oil off her hands.

"Can I help you?" she asked.

Suddenly she inhaled our presence.

"What's this about?"

"May we talk inside?" The commander asked.

"Come back later. This isn't a good time," she said.

"We're sorry ma'am, but we can't do that. Please, may we come in?"

The commander's pained look demanded passage and permission was granted.

The commander started the script, but she refused to let him "regret" and her oily hands formed an airtight seal over her ears.

Eventually we were able to deliver our line and the medic watched for signs of fainting as I held her hand and prayed. The legal guy explained how her husband's dignity would be guarded by the trusted escort of a friend all the way home.

The compassion was as real as it could be even if it wasn't real.

For you see, on this occasion, it wasn't real at all. All the players were volunteer actors taking part in a base exercise designed to make us ready for future realities.

The predictability of the script gives breath to the fear known by every person who has ever served in the military. It is a fear reenacted hundreds of times in the mind of the service member and their families. Despite the fear, they go, they do their jobs, and most of them come home.

So, as we pause during this time of war to celebrate the contributions made by our servicemen and women, we are best served by remembering those who never wavered as they served.

Frankly, I'd have rather eaten the fish that day than taste the flashbacks generated from the exercise.

They were flashbacks of finding houses in the middle of the night where porch lights reflected off our polished brass to signal the intent of our visit.

They were flashbacks where screams sliced open the night and hopes careened out of control as spouses, children, parents and siblings were told of their new reality.

This exercise was much too real. It was exactly the way it happens every time too much of the time.

We got a good grade on the exercise and I suppose that was good because a few weeks later we were called to do it for real. We had to interrupt a little boy's birthday party to do it, but we did it.

While simultaneously turning five-year-old party goers away at the doorstep, the commander began his script.

"Ma'am we regret to inform you...."

For more information about Norris Burkes please log onto his website at www.chaplainnorris.com.

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